Review by Pete Mason
If there was to be a counterbalance to “Django Unchained,” it is “12 Years a Slave,” the harrowing and unfathomable tale of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man tricked into traveling to Washington, D.C. and ending up in chains for over a decade. With no method to free himself, he survives and finds his way back home after many years of witnessing the worst of humanity on display in the southern United States.
An accomplished fiddle player from Saratoga Springs, Northrup is a family man who embarks on a trip with a dapper and convincing Hamilton (SNL’s Taran Killam) and Brown (Scott McNairy) to the south, where he awakes in chains and told that his name is Platt and he’s a runaway slave from Georgia. Not used to taking orders from incompetent overseers and masters, Northrup does as he is told, but not at the expense of his hard labor. Although he is stuck in the south and left with no choice but to adapt and survive, he isn’t taking the beatings and verbal abuse lightly.
In one scene, he beats overseer Tibeats (an angry Paul Dano), risking his life in the process, until Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, as a benevolent/good Christian owner) saves Solomon’s life by transferring him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where he would spend the rest of his unlawful enslavement dealing with the torturous work and beatings that make up the worst of hell on earth. Fassbender is an intimidating force but only later in the film. He is a cruel master but does not register above a whisper until later in the film, but still, this role feels less than convincing for him.
The weight of the film doesn’t sink in as more than one of despair until things get worse for fellow slaves, including the savage whipping of Patsy (a calm yet passionate Lupita Nyong’o) for acquiring a small bar of soap. This is when Solomon seems to develop his first emotional connection with the others who he recognizes as being on the same side, and not just victims of circumstance like he is; down South, this is the norm. The brutality is present in the film with hangings, poor living conditions, children taken from their parents at auction, and a complete lack of freedom that Solomon has been accustomed to for decades as a free man in Saratoga.
Solomon attempts to gain the assistance of a white man brought to the plantation as a slave, and asks him to help him get a letter to Saratoga so he might prove he is a free man. While the betrayal is expected, Northrup’s reaction to getting caught is fantastic and a sign of marked determination not just to regain his freedom, but to also not suffer the growing abuses from Fassbender. Naturally, Brad Pitt saves the day as a sympathetic ear, one Northrup cannot fully trust but chances it and (spoiler) regains his freedom and finds his family 12 years later.
A tear-jerking reunion with his family, the film is more of a reality than the fantasy of Django. The Bible use to defend slavery and justify actions, used by Cumberbatch as a tool of good, and by Fassbender as a tool to do worse, highlights the duplicitous nature of the southern slave owner, and a free man’s reaction to such rationalization, are on full display in “12 Years a Slave.”